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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sage Dynamics Firearms Training: Press Check? Maybe You Shouldn't

Press Checking is the term used to describe pulling back on the slide of a handgun to “see brass” and ensure you have a loaded chamber.  It is instructed as a method to visually verify that our firearm is in fact loaded and ready to fire.  

Sage Dynamics: Press Check


There are more than a few different methods to accomplish this, holds, positioning of the weapon and the hand and a few add on techniques (such as fist bumping the back of your handgun after you let it back into battery to ensure its seated, which I find just a little strange).   I was instructed in the method pictured about ten years ago and I practiced press-checking for a few months and then something made me stop (ill get to what happened in a bit).

Like everything else in the firearm world, it has supporters and opponents.  I’m going to ignore all of the pros and cons save for those that deal directly with the effects of press checking on the ammunition and possible complications with the weapon.  Since we are in the same area of conversation, we might as well have a look at re-chambering rounds while we are at it. 

So what does a Press Check do in regards to the ammunition?  As we pull the slide (or the bolt, in the case of rifles) to the rear in order to see the round, we unseat the round from the chamber and drag it rearward to a point where we are certain we in fact see a round and then the slide (bolt) is either ridden forward or let forward under spring tension.  The question is; does this hurt the round and can it lead to a malfunction?  The answer to both is; yes, it can. 

Three Fresh Rounds
To test this, I took three 9mm Hornady 135 Grain Critical Duty Flexlock rounds and press-checked one round 200, one 300 and 500 times (using the method pictured above) in a Gen 4 Glock 17 (also pictured) Before beginning this process, I measured each round with an electronic caliper.  After a week of working press checks to my desired numbers, I measured them again.  A simple and straight forward experiment that may not satisfy the desire for complete scientific controls, but it serves as a strong anecdotal experiment that lends to my opinion that press checking can be harmful and is largely unnecessary (we will get to the last part).

Round One Before
Round one.

Round Two Before
Round two.

Round 3 Before
Round three.

So we have three factory rounds, measuring  28.83mm (round 1), 28.79mm (round 2) and 28.82 (round 3) to begin. 

Round 1 After
The first round was press checked 200 times and ended with a measurement of 27.92mm.  Notice in the photo that the cannelure of the round has been pushed completely into the casing and is no longer visible. 

Round Two After
The second round, press checked 300 times ended with a measurement of 27.93mm and the cannelure is also pressed completely into the casing. 

Round 3 After
Our last round, press checked 500 times, ended with a measurement of 27.87 and again, the cannelure has been totally pushed into the casing. 

So what does this prove?  Well, a bullet seated too deep in a casing will create over-pressure when the primer is stuck and the powder ignited.  As the powder burns it releases gas, which presses in all directions inside the cartridge.  As the bullet is designed to separate from the cartridge and there is nothing stopping it from being propelled down the barrel, you have a successful discharge. With a bullet seated too deeply, you have the risk of the cartridge fracturing which may simply result in a cycle malfunction, a squib (bullet lodged in the barrel as too much energy escapes via the cartridge rupture before the bullet can be forced out of the barrel) or a chamber rupture. 

Bullets seated too deeply in casings have been known to destroy guns and pride.  It is also possible that repeated impacts into the chamber as the round is reseated can cause the primer mixture to work out of the primer, which means the round will not fire.  Does this mean your press checking is going to lead to a catastrophic weapon failure?  No, it’s not guaranteed.  However, it’s avoidable as the press check is pointless in 99% of situations.

Round 3 After VS. Fresh Round


(pictured, a fresh round from the same box and the 500 press check round)

Why do I disagree with the press check? Well my own experience (which I referenced above) occurred with a failure to fire on a round that had been press checked daily for around two months on a duty weapon.  I don’t know the exact number of times I press checked the weapon before I pulled the trigger and got a click instead of a bang.  After an immediate-action to finish the string, I policed the FTF round and being curious, pulled the bullet to see what I could see.  The primer mixture had indeed been knocked from the primer. 

Of course there are plenty of people out there who press check as a religious practice and have never had this occurrence.  For me, the risk of it occurring when there are alternate methods to check chamber condition is too great to advise or practice press checking. 

Let’s be clear on this; the press check is an administrative function.  It is a method used to verify a loaded chamber under ideal and safe conditions before putting a weapon into service or holstering.  Almost all modern firearms have either a loaded chamber indicator or a witness window that allows you to “see brass.” After market options can replace smooth extractors with extractors that have a raised edge or spine allowing you to “feel” a loaded chamber.  There is even one manufacturer producing extractors with tritium inserts that allows you to see green on a loaded chamber in low light conditions. 

No one press checks in a gunfight, that’s what tap-rack is for.  If you get a click when you wanted a bang, you perform immediate action and get back in the fight, you don’t stop, give your handgun the “right on brother” handshake and then go from there based on the presence or lack of brass.  Knowing the condition of your weapon at all times is important, it’s part of our cardinal firearms safety rules, but we shouldn’t advocate or practice a method of condition verification that can and does lead to ammunition related malfunctions and is easily replaced with other methods.

For the AR family of weapons and any weapon that feeds from a staggered stack magazine, the alternative to a press check is to observe which side of the magazine the top round is on, chamber the first round, then remove the magazine.  If the top round is now on the opposite side, you have a loaded chamber.  This technique works with all AR magazines I am aware of, as well as AK magazines.

Is there any situation in which I would use a press check?  Yes. If I find myself in low light conditions and do not want to use a light for risk of discovery and am somehow unsure of my weapon condition, I would do a press check to “feel” the brass with my support hand.  As this situation would be rarer than a unicorn burger buffet, I doubt I will ever need to practice a press check, but I am prepared to if necessary.  Also, if I found myself using a weapon that did not feed from a staggered magazine or did not have a loaded chamber indicator and I was not sure of the chamber condition, a press check may be in order.  Also a rare circumstance.

Feel Brass
(a low light method for checking the chamber condition of a handgun, feeling for brass)

What technique do I use?  Loaded chamber indicator and magazine witness holes.  With a freshly loaded magazine of 17 rounds, I release the slide and visually check to “see brass.”  I then drop the magazine and check the magazine witness holes, with a loaded round I will not see brass on the last hole.  This is further verified by topping off the magazine to give me 17 rounds, which will be evident in the magazine witness holes.  If your firearm does not have a chamber indicator or witness holes on the magazines, press checking may be your only option.

What naturally seems to go hand in hand with press checking is chambered round rotation.  Basically, you unload the round in the chamber for whatever reason (range time, storage, etc) and when you are ready to make the weapon carry-ready again, you either re-insert the defensive ammo magazine and chamber the next round in line and then load the stripped round back into the magazine, or you reload the round from the chamber into the magazine first and chamber it.  Either practice can and will (over time, and that time can’t be predicted) cause issues with the round like those identified above. 

Another significant issue that is exaggerated by the increased force exerted on the round repeatedly by chambering it from a locked slide is that you may cause the bullet to be pushed so far into the casing that it will not chamber correctly. Besides this and perhaps the most relevant reason for avoiding this practice is that the primer compound can be knocked from the primer, setting you up for a failure to fire when you may need the round the most. 

The best real world example I am aware of in which this happened, occurred in September of 2011 with a Lawrenceville, Ga police officer.  The officer had small children so he made a habit of making his duty weapon safe when at home, which meant that he ejected the chambered round.  When making his weapon duty ready, he would chamber the next round in the magazine and feed the previously ejected round into the magazine.  These two rounds were rotated through the chamber in this fashion since the rounds were issued (in February or March of 2011).

The officer found himself in a situation where deadly force was needed, his first round failed to fire; he performed immediate action and put the weapon back into service with the second round.  Testing of the officers duty ammunition found that the primer compound had been unseated from the primer…seems to be a reoccurring theme.

All ammunition when loaded in magazines has a life expectancy that we cant readily predict.  Your habits for making weapons safe, loading, unloading and press checking can shorten that life in ways that are neither predictable nor evident until the ammunition is fired.  In any event, your best practice is always going to be to minimize unnecessary stress on ammunition. This means that if you intend to press check, keep it deliberate and not a manner of habit. You are not looking at your watch, you are ensuring a weapon is loaded and ready to defend your life, so don’t forget if you saw brass or not and press check again ten seconds later. 

Be aware of your weapon condition and use the firearms features to minimize press checking.  When you rotate chambered rounds, do so with the intent to re-chamber that round as few times as possible before shooting it or discarding it.  I won’t say Never Press Check, I’ll leave that up to you based on your own experiences and research, though don’t buy into the technique without either. 

Aaron Cowan is the Lead Instructor for Sage Dynamics, a reality-focused firearms and tactics training company that provides practical instruction from the fundamentals to advanced skills for the civilian, police and military professional.  Aaron served in the US Army as an Infantryman,  as a private security contractor overseas and as a police officer.  In addition to patrol he worked as a a SWAT team member, SWAT deputy team commander, SWAT sniper, sniper section leader and in-service police training officer. Aaron holds multiple professional certifications including the National Rifle Association Law Enforcement Division’s instructor training program, California POST certified academy instructor, Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Active Shooter Response Instructor and Simunitions Scenario Instructor among others. When he isn't teaching or training, hes writes semi-regular for Recoil (web) and Breach Bang Clear among others."

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